If you already have a cat, you are familiar with hairballs, particularly if your cat is long-haired. Hairballs happen. When a cat grooms herself, the tiny barbs at the back of her tongue pull off any excess hair. The hair is then swallowed; this is perfectly normal. The cat’s stomach is unable to digest this hair. Most of it will pass through and will end up in the cat’s stool with no problem. We worry more about hairballs than the cat does. Cats will vomit hairballs. This does not mean that the cat is ill. When a hairball is not expelled, it can become a very serious health problem and always requires veterinarian care.
A hairball will form when the hair stays in the stomach instead of passing through and will then begin to accumulate. The hair mixes with digested food and gastric secretions and forms a damp wad, in a sausage-like shape, which we call a hairball. When the mass of hair reaches a critical size, the cat then vomits it. It is normal for a cat to vomit a hairball once every week or two. Long-haired cats, obviously, will vomit hairballs more than short-haired cats. This is nothing to worry about. A hairball in the stomach can irritate the stomach lining and interfere with digestion, that’s why the cat must vomit it.
Sometimes, at first glance, one can mistake a hairball with feces. But with a closer look, you will find that it doesn’t have a foul odor and the color will more closely resemble your cat’s fur.
A hairball’s size can vary. They are usually around an inch in length, though they can be five inches long and an inch thick.
NOTE: Kittens and young cats are less likely to develop hairballs than older cats. Also the development of hairballs is more frequent at times when a cat sheds more, like in the spring.
Sometimes the cat vomits immediately after eating due to the irritation of the hairball to the stomach lining and also due to its size (not enough room for the food). Cats have been known to suffer hairballs as big as baseballs that require surgical removal. It is wise to consult your veterinarian at this point. Too large of a hairball can cause a stomach or intestinal blockage which is a serious health problem. If a cat becomes dehydrated (due to some health problem) her stomach contents can become dry and a blockage may occur.
NOTE: Occasionally a cat will swallow a piece of string, or some such similar item, and it will mix with the hair and stomach secretions forming a large, hard obstruction. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate surgery. Vomiting and pain occur when the blockage is in the stomach.
Dr. James Richards, DVM, the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center states that one of the largest dangers of hairballs is not the hairball itself but the possibility there is a more serious condition that people often blame on hairballs. With a cat that coughs or vomits a lot, it may be an absolute error to assume it is caused by hairballs. Although uncommon, there could be a more serious problem. If a cat vomits regularly, it’s wise to consult a veterinarian.
Dr. Richards, DVM also adds that sometimes passage of hair through the large intestine can irritate the tissues and may cause small amounts of blood or mucous in the stool. If this occurs regularly, take your cat to your veterinarian.
Unfortunately, what works for one cat doesn’t necessarily work for another one. You may have to go through some trial and error to find what works best for your cat.
Frequent brushing and/or combing is very helpful. This usually helps you and your cat to bond together more since most cats find brushing very enjoyable. A rubber brush is most effective for short-haired cats. Daily brushing is strongly advised with long-haired cats. The more hair you remove, the less hair your cat will ingest. Weekly brushings are probably enough for short-haired cats.
For those cats who dislike brushing and/or combing, nub-covered grooming gloves are a good alternative (most pet stores have them available). You simply put the glove on and stroke your cat gently.
NOTE: Cats that dislike grooming have most likely had a bad grooming experience in which the brush or comb caught on a hair mat which was then roughly pulled out, causing pain. Also, if the cat is elderly, combing too hard can irritate and hurt since their skin may be more sensitive to pulling and/or sharp brush bristles. Always groom gently and make the experience very pleasurable to your cat.
Even with good brushing, with long-haired cats it is rarely enough. Having the cat shaved by a professional groomer will definitely cut the hairball problem (as well as solve the “hair on everything in your house” problem). Shaving will dramatically change your cat’s appearance, but it can be most attractive if done by a professional groomer. The cat many times will look like a little lion! If you opt for shaving, remember, a cat’s coat protects her from the cold of winter and the heat and insects of summer. She will need to be kept in a controlled environment (your home) and not allowed outside, particularly in the cold, wintry months.
Intestinal lubricants (such as Laxatone) are quite helpful in keeping hairballs passing through the cat’s digestive system as opposed to the cat having to vomit them up. These gels and pastes come in pleasing flavors for your cat and as a result, many cats enjoy them and will take them without any fuss. These intestinal lubricants are sometimes referred to as “hairball laxatives” (petroleum based gels). They are readily available at most pet stores. Even though they are called hairball laxatives, they really are not laxatives. Diarrhea will not result from frequent use. It is cautioned though that giving laxative pastes in excess could possibly interfere with the cat’s system’s ability to absorb fat soluble vitamins and therefore create a health problem.
Dr. Drew Weigner, DVM (of the American Board of Veterinarian Practitioners and past president of the Academy of Feline Medicine) says there is a downside to hairball gels. Oftentimes the cat is not given enough and is not given the gel frequently enough.
Dr. Weigner states that the most effective dose is giving the cat a 2-inch strip from the tube of lubricant twice daily for two days. (This is far more than indicated on the label.)
For cats that like the taste, giving them an inch every day or two will prevent hairballs. If this doesn’t stop the hairballs, just give the above dose for two days. When hairballs return, repeat the initial dose.
When all else fails and the hairball problem persists, consult your veterinarian. The intestinal lubricant gel can be given with a prescribed drug, called Metoclopramide, Dr. Weigner says, which facilitates the emptying of the stomach. Generally, hairballs should be resolved within 48 hours. If not, either the problem is not hairballs, or a hairball is lodged and may need to be removed surgically.
Avoid home remedies, especially mineral oil. It can be dangerous. You don’t want to give your cat a liquid oil like mineral oil or baby oil directly in the mouth. Regular mineral oil is tasteless and a cat can accidentally aspirate it. Cats tend to inhale such nondescript oils into their lungs. That’s because of the lack of flavor to the oils and, as such, don’t signal the cat that they are edible. –Dr. Linda A. Ross, DVM
Increasing your cat’s dietary fiber may also help to move hair through the gastrointestinal tract. Feeding your cat a commercially prepared “hairball” diet food (which is a high-fiber food) may help, though there have been no independent studies performed at this time to support the claims. A higher-fiber diet can increase a cat’s stool output. Both the frequency and size of the hairballs will simply be reduced. A high-fiber diet, though, can never guarantee that your cat will never have a hairball.
NOTE: Some cats love canned pumpkin (plain, no spices)–one or two teaspoons daily mixed in the cat’s canned food may help keep things moving. – Dr. James Richards, DVM. Powdered psyllium mixed with food is another option. Non-medicated petroleum jelly, which many cats consider a treat, is also quite effective. Simply spread some on your cat’s front paw for her to lick off.
In conclusion, remember, just because your cat vomits once a day, it doesn’t mean she is sick. She needs to see a vet if she vomits five or six times in a day. An underlying medical problem might be present. When in doubt, always check with your veterinarian, who is a competent, trained and licensed professional. Let your veterinarian diagnose what’s wrong–never assume you know what’s wrong. Many medical conditions in cats exhibit similar symptoms. Only your veterinarian can diagnose what’s wrong with your cat through proper examination and/or testing.
Most important–don’t ever medicate your cat unless under a veterinarian’s guidance. A cat’s system is very sensitive to medications. Did you know, that even though you can give an aspirin to your dog (if your veterinarian advises you to), that giving aspirin to your cat could be lethal?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Consult your veterinarian on what hairball remedy product is best for your cat. Your veterinarian has experience on the effectiveness of the various gels and pastes available.
TWO COMMON HAIRBALL MYTHS
Cats “cough” to get rid of hairballs.
In reality, the offending hairball is in the cat’s stomach. So the cat must vomit–not cough–to expel it.
When a cat lies low to the ground and makes a coughing-sound, it is trying to expel a hairball.
In reality, the low-lying posture suggests that the cat is actually coughing. If the cat does this frequently–there is probably an underlying medical condition such as asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, pneumonia, or any of a huge range of health issues. You need to consult with your veterinarian.
Cleaning hairball stains from carpet is relatively easy. Since cats are either vomiting undigested food or a tube-shaped mass of hair, the mass oftentimes is relatively dry. The material can usually be simply vacuumed up after it dries. If a stain persists, use a spray stain remover/cleaner, like Resolve, to remove it.